Nuyoricans are migrants and the descendants of migrants who moved from Puerto Rico to New York City and its environs. The bulk of this population migrated during the 1940s and 1950s. Even though Nicholasa Mohr was born slightly earlier, in 1938, she still was part of those changes. Her writing revealed the realities that musicals like West Side Story glossed over. Her truth and determination helped make her a literary and artistic success.
Mohr’s mother Nicholasa (Rivera) Golpe moved with four sons to East Harlem and there met her future husband, Pedro Golpe. The new family moved to the Bronx before having three children together. On November 1, 1938, young Nicholasa became their final child and only daughter. She fell in love with reading after discovering the local public library at the age of 7.
Her father died when she was 8 years old, leaving the family in a precarious financial situation. She used paper, pencils, and crayons that her mother gave her to work through not just grief but also the daily struggles of life. Even though it was considered unnecessary for a Hispanic girl to get anything other than a trade education, her mother encouraged her to keep drawing, and the girl found a school where she could study fashion design.
Again family tragedy struck, and before she could finish high school, young Nicholasa’s mother died, leaving her in the care of an aunt who didn’t encourage her. But it didn’t matter, because the teen already had her career goals set, and after graduating from the trade school she went to the Arts Students League from 1953-56 while she worked to support herself. Her work allowed her to finish that training and to travel to Mexico City to study the culture and artists behind the Mexican murals she had grown to love. She returned to NYC and was a fine arts painter from 1957-58 while she attended the New School for Social Research, where she met her future husband, Irwin Mohr.
From 1959-66 Nicholasa Mohr was a fine arts painter at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. She worked with printmaking and silkscreening at the Pratt Center for Contemporary Printmaking from 1966-69. As she continued making and teaching art at various schools, her love of books turned into a career in books as an illustrator. Along with her images, Mohr starting adding text, and it was her text that got her a book contract.
Nilda: A Novel was published in 1973 and was roundly praised for the story and the illustrations, all of which Mohr created. The book told the story of Nilda, a teenage Nuyorican growing up amid poverty and bigotry. It was the first of 13 books that Mohr saw published by major American companies like Harper & Row and Penguin Random House. When Nilda was published, Mohr became the first Latina author to sign a contract with a major literary company, and her works through 1998 made her the Latina author with the longest career with major publishers. No, once you are in the “big leagues” of publishing there is no guarantee you will continue with the giants, so this is quite an accomplishment, even in the 21st century.
Mohr’s characters tackle not only prejudice for being Hispanic but also sexism and economic hardships. The pressure to assimilate yet respect cultural heritage is another theme her work addresses. For an artist, the role of language as both controlling and freeing recurs.
Mohr continues to work as an artist, author, teacher, and producer at educational institutions, in community groups, and on public television. She has won numerous literary awards, including the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award in 1974 and the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature in 1997. Even at the age of 80, Mohr can still occasionally be found giving lectures or meeting fans.